Utopia on a Knife Edge

In 1516, Thomas More penned Utopia, in which he describes an idyllic land where private property is abolished, healthcare and sustenance are free, and there exists a universal basic income.

‘Nobody owns anything, but everyone is rich’, More writes, ‘for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?’ 

The word ‘utopia’ translates from the original classical Greek as ‘no place’ or ‘good place’, and Quentin Skinner’s interpretation of the text – that More was writing satire, contrasting idealism unfavourably to realism – is commonly accepted. Nevertheless, Fátime Vieira argues that More, by rejecting his original idea of naming the fictional world ‘Nusquama’ – the Latin word for ‘on no occasion’ – was actually conveying an idea based on humanist logic; that humans can use reason to build the future rather than rely on fate. This inclusive definition, Vieria reasons, is why More inspired the utopian literary tradition and theories of progress in European enlightenment discourse. Later utopian socialists like Henri de Saint-Simon believed it possible for humankind to strategize and bring into practice a utopia, and today’s left-futurists, arguably the inheritors of the utopian socialist tradition, foresee a potentially imminent scenario where this ideal becomes the reality.

The year is 2100. The light of technology has guided humanity into a new era, and people have built paradise on earth. Life expectancy has expanded, and diseases hitherto considered fatal can now be removed as easily as pulling out a tick. All people are fed and housed to the highest standards – homelessness and famine are but bywords of a barbaric past. Earth’s biosystem has stabilised, and with intelligent robots completing the vast majority of manual and service work, humans, no longer bound by the shackles of labour, find new meanings to their lives. They pursue their passions; learning, educating, exploring, experimenting, and creating. 

Though this scenario may seem fanciful, many Left Futurists argue that it is within reach. In Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani argues that we are in the midst of the ‘Third Disruption’, where, just as the Neolithic revolution gave rise to agriculture and horsepower, and then coal and the steam engine replaced them in turn, our technological-energy matrix is shifting into one dominated by automation, solar power, and the information economy. The impact of this change translates into extreme supply: the cost of labour, energy, and resources are falling to zero. This can already be observed in the energy sector: renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels and the price continues to fall year on year. Lab-grown meat, for another example, is an expensive process today, but will soon be infinitely cheaper than intensive farming: the rise of cellular agriculture will thus help to slay the twin evils of animal suffering and climate breakdown. This is a post-scarcity future where, in James Bogg’s words, the ‘great masses of people will be free to explore and reflect, to question and to create, to learn and to teach, unhampered by the fear of where the next meal is coming from’.

Left Futurists are, however, keen to stress that this utopia cannot be reached without a corresponding political project. Let us consider an alternative future, a dystopia, one in which current power structures and political systems endure, and the fruits of automation are enjoyed by the 1% alone. 

The year is 2100. Earth’s accelerating climate has passed the point of no-return, rendering vast swathes of the planet uninhabitable. The descendants of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos live as superhuman, technologically augmented entities inside impregnable palaces, devising plans between them to colonise the stars above. In the slums below, untold numbers languish in poverty, substance addiction, disease, and depression: long since displaced by machines, they serve no purpose. Nation states under the iron grip of fascism war over scarce resources like fresh water, while political dissidents are hunted by automated police robots using face recognition technology and advanced AI to predict and extinguish any attempt at organised resistance.

Both scenarios are plausible, and we may well have arrived at a fork in the road. Political change is borne of crises, and it will not have escaped the attention of the reader that we are living in an unprecedentedly tumultuous era. Bastani calls it the ‘Great Disorder’: a time of climate breakdown, epidemics, and skyrocketing inequality. Thomas More once described Tudor society as a ‘conspiracy of the rich’, and, with the wealth of the ten richest men in the world doubling during the pandemic as the incomes of the 99% fell, it is clear that this conspiracy prevails today. If the 2008 banking crash resulted in the blossoming of populist movements across the world, Paolo Gerbaudo argues in The Great Recoil that the coronavirus pandemic heralds a dialectic clash between populism and neoliberalism. This clash, he argues, will lead to the emergence of a new political paradigm: ‘protective neo-statism’, which will take the form of either a left-wing social protectivism or a right-wing proprietarian protectionism. While both entail a more active, interventionist state when compared to the neoliberal era, the former would see the state pursue social and environmental security, whereas the latter would emphasise the security of property.     

Similarly, in The Corona Crash, Grace Blakeley observes that pandemic recovery could either be defined by the principles of a Green New Deal, or by the rise of a monopoly capitalism that will destroy democracy itself. When it comes to utopia, the political settlement that follows the ‘Great Disorder’ is of paramount importance because, as is increasingly becoming clear, the very same advancements in AI, automation and energy that will create a post-scarcity world are undermining the very foundations of capitalism itself. In other words, the emerging political paradigm may not only define the next fifty years, but the entry of our species into its next phase of development.

In 1858, Karl Marx wrote a Fragment on Machines, in which he foresaw a future economy where labour was largely automated, and the role of humans was to organise and supervise. Information had replaced labour as the dominant productive force, and the contradiction between technology and the market mechanism would lead to a transition beyond capitalism. Fast forward to the present day, and there is evidence all around us that this prediction is coming true: ours is the era of the information economy, of automation, and the internet. As Paul Mason writes in Postcapitalism, ‘information technology, far from creating a new and stable form of capitalism, is dissolving it: corroding market mechanisms, eroding property rights and destroying the old relationship between wages, work and profit’.

 If capitalism is on its way out, and the ‘Great Disorder’ is resolved on terms favourable to the majority over billionaires, then there will be little to prevent the ascension of humanity into a utopian future of unprecedented prosperity and joy. But this cannot be taken for granted. Capitalism is extraordinarily adept at imposing its logic in absurd new ways: just witness the rise of NFTs, for example. As information tends towards abundancy, there will be attempts to restrict this through patents and by manufacturing scarcity, leading to a society divided between a rentier-precariat class and an elite class with godlike power. Rose Eveleth argues in Wired that the Italian futurist movement of the early 20th century led to the rise of fascism, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility for futurism to serve that same purpose today. Such is the road to dystopia: a world where, to quote Antonio Gramsci, the ‘old is dying and the new cannot be born’.

How, then, do we reach utopia? The first step is for the left to widen its scope, lest it repeats the mistakes of the recent past. Grace Blakeley is right to say that socialists failed to ‘use the political opening generated by the 2008 financial crisis to move beyond capitalism’, so our vision today should be aimed precisely at rolling back the frontiers of capitalist realism. For Bastani, the ‘default logic’ of our culture has been ‘anti-utopianism: flat wages, falling home ownership and a warming planet might be bad, granted, but at least we have iPhones’. As such, it is crucial for the left to instil hope in people by offering them radical solutions and policies while rejecting the constraints of outdated elite consensus around ‘affordability’ or ‘pragmatism’. 

Secondly, a mass movement must be built from  environmentalist and socialist traditions, coalescing around a Green New Deal. In Automation and the Future of Work, Aaron Benanav correctly states that ‘historically, major shifts in social policy’ have ‘only been adopted under massive pressure’ like the threat of civilisation collapse. Green parties across the globe will almost certainly enjoy ever-increasing electoral success, but there remains a huge, untapped majority who, though deeply concerned about the climate apocalypse, feel alienated from the very middle-class tone and culture of the green movements. Environmentalism plus class analysis is therefore both a necessary and advantageous combination: only a socialistic Green New Deal, one that prioritises material reinvigoration of working-class communities, can be the foundation on which a mass movement is built. 

Lastly, we must reinvigorate democracy by demanding, in Blakeley’s words, the ‘radical democratisation of national and international economic institutions’ that will give ‘workers, consumers and communities a say in decision making within publicly owned companies, central banks and throughout local government and the central bank’. If Paolo Gerbaudo’s theory on the rise of neo-statism is correct, then the left must consolidate social protectivism by defending the democratic rights of communities against the anti-democratic bureaucratic onslaught of globalised capital.

Though the challenges facing our species are immense, let us not forget that so too are the opportunities. We are confronted with the possibility of the ascension of human civilisation beyond the social brutality and injustice that typifies capitalist societies, and towards an era of unprecedented prosperity, plenty, and meaning. We cannot simply rely on the tides of history to bring us to utopia’s shores – we must navigate those waters ourselves. Our era is volatile, but therein lies our great advantage: as old certainties are tested beyond their credulity, we have never been better placed to challenge capitalist realism. For Aaron Benenav, More’s Utopia tells us that the basic precondition for generating a post-scarcity world is the ‘abolition of private property and monetary exchange in favour of planned cooperation’, and that ‘instead of presupposing a fully automated economy and imagining the possibilities for a better and freer world created out of it’, we should ‘begin from a world of generalised human dignity’. 

This is the task for our generation.  Utopia is on a knife-edge, and to win the future, we must first prevail in the struggle for today.

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